Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Rethinking the Freelance Life, Part One: Our Work with Clients

Freelancing has been my life for the last eight years. My unwavering passion for all things writing—a career path not exactly known for fulltime, long-term employment—collided with an economic trend toward hiring contract workers and temporary employees, one of the many job-related challenges facing my generation.

For me, it’s worked out, and I’ve come to enjoy the freelance lifestyle. I have a calendar full of appointments and assignments. I’m paying my rent. And I’m working with interesting, passionate clients on a variety of projects.

In that time, I have also had the opportunity to collaborate with other freelancers, from designers to programmers to fellow writers. In every case, I learned a lot from these people and have had very few bad experiences. I’ve noticed, though, a common line of thinking amongst many freelancers (not all): they compare themselves to pirates.

The philosophy, as it was explained to me once, goes like this:

“We’re pirates. We sail from project to project collecting treasure where there is treasure to be had. We join forces with other pirates when the treasure is too big for one pirate, we go our separate ways when the project is done, and since we are all pirates, we will mutiny if the leader isn’t doing his job.”

It’s a romantic view. Pirates are free and independent. They chase adventure. They are risk-takers and visionaries because they have chosen the freelance path. It’s a sink or swim life, so if you meet a veteran freelancer you know that he or she has had the chops, the creativity, and the mettle to succeed in a challenging environment.

I’m fine with being proud of and enamored with the independence and challenge of freelancing. Where I get uncomfortable, however, is equating clients with treasure. In the pirate metaphor, this starts to suggest that clients are ports to be plundered. Do the job, get the loot, and get out.

Fans of the pirate metaphor may rightly argue that they never meant it that way, and I would believe them, but I argue that the picture you paint of yourself can easily become your reality if you’re not careful. If you’re a leader, the young and impressionable around you may buy into the picture as well, taking the painting for face-value regardless of your original meaning and its caveats.

The best freelancers I’ve met and worked with behave less like pirates and more like helpful neighbors. Their permanent business residences may be their own, but they are active, contributing members of their communities. They go where they are needed and fill the gaps. Sometimes the projects are big. Sometimes they are small. Sometimes the freelancer is the leader of the team because he or she is the expert, and sometimes he or she is following the lead of someone within the company. The freelancer could be there for a month, or maybe a year, or maybe he or she pops in and out for the foreseeable future.

While they are doing their work though, the most effective freelancers aren’t fixated on plunder like a pirate might be. They are getting paid, yes, but their focus is on doing what’s best for their clients. They want to leave their clients better off than when the project first began, and they are respectful of client limitations like budget and bandwidth. They might be able to squeeze a few more coppers out of the deal, but they establish reasonable scopes for their work because the clients are often better off.

A pirate asks for more budget for the sake of a bigger paycheck. A neighbor asks for more budget for the sake of capitalizing on an authentic, viable opportunity.

It may not sound romantic or exciting, but people are more likely to trust and collaborate with a neighbor than a bandit that sails in, fills his ship with treasure, and disappears when there is nothing left to loot.

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